By PAT EATON-ROBB
AP Sports Writer
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (CBS Connecticut and AP) – UConn is looking to build off the momentum of its first bowl appearance in five years as it kicks off the season Thursday night by hosting Maine, a rebuilding team from the Championship Subdivision.
The Huskies, looking to impress as a contender to become part of the Big 12 expansion, were 6-7 last year after going 2-10 in coach Bob Diaco’s first season. They return 15 starters, including the top rusher, receiver and passer from a year ago and will be attempting to post the program’s first winning record since 2010.
Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs is entering his second season under center after throwing for 2,078 yards and running for 503 last season. But he said despite the wealth of experience, the team hasn’t been buying into the talk that it has “arrived.”
“I think that can be toxic,” he said. “I think it’s more about our preparation and mindset and I’m really satisfied with the work that was put in during the offseason.”
Maine was 3-8 last season and is entering the first full season under 30-year-old Joe Harasymiak, the youngest NCAA Division I head coach.
The Black Bears return 17 who players who started at least five games last season, but are learning a new pro-style offense under first-year coordinator Liam Coen, after averaging fewer than 15 points a game last year.
Here are some other things to watch for as UConn hosts Maine.
Diaco, a former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, has given the Husky defense a new identity, comparing them in preseason meetings to Batman.
“Batman has no exceptional superpower,” Diaco said. “He just had an interest and a mission and trained hard. There’s a little bit of darkness there, too, and that’s kind of cool. We like that.”
The Huskies were ranked 33rd in the nation in overall defense last season and 19th in scoring defense, giving up just 19.5 points per game.
BEST IN THE NATION
UConn’s defense is led by its secondary, including junior cornerback Jamar Summers, who had eight interceptions last year and senior safety Obi Melifonwu.
Summers has been named to the preseason watch lists for the Thorpe, Bednarik and Nagurski awards.
But Diaco said Melifonwu may be the best player at his position in the nation.
“He’s a special, special talent,” he said. “He’s not much of a household name at this point, but he will be.”
Maine’s punter and leading receiver have both been suspended for the game for violations of the student-athlete code of conduct that occurred last spring.
James DeMartini averaged 40.7 yards per punt last season and was named the team’s offensive rookie of the year. Micah Wright had 61 catches for 818 receiving yards last season.
The team has not said what led to the suspensions, but Wright was arrested in May and charged with disorderly conduct after an off-campus party.
Maine will be looking for just its third win over a Bowl Subdivision opponent. The Black Bears beat Mississippi in 2004 and UMass in 2014. UConn leads the series with the Black Bears 39-31-3, and has won the last three meetings.
HOTDOGS AND ATTENDANCE:
UConn has implemented a number of new changes at Rentschler Field designed to entice more fans to the game. Those include dropping the prices of hot dogs and bottled water from $5 each to $3. The team is also holding a free barbeque for students before the game. The Huskies averaged just over 28,000 fans in the 40,000-seat stadium last season and have not sold out a game since hosting Michigan in 2013.
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